The practice of diplomacy in the virtual space is geared towards amplifying foreign policy drives and messages and forms a vital and dynamic branch of strategic communication. Now, more than ever before, we are faced with the inexorable certainty of a digital future – a future that has already begun. As COVID-19 thrusts the world’s population into their homes and compels multiple operations and processes to move online, diplomatic engagements too must be primed to fit the order and arrangement of altered circumstances. The use of the internet offers real time dissemination and exchanges in a relatively informal setting, at low financial costs and aims at shrinking the space between foreign publics and stakeholders on the one hand and foreign policy practices and practitioners on the other.
Digital diplomacy falls under the broader spectrum of public diplomacy, the roots of which can be traced to the extensive use of radio communications by both the Axis and the Allied powers during WWII. Interestingly, the digitization of diplomacy however is believed to have happened earlier when foreign ministries first began the use of telegraph services in the 19th century. In the contemporary context, digital diplomacy has been practiced primarily through social media since the innovation of an online world, the arrival of new information communication technologies and the rapid popularity of the internet.
Today, diplomats and government representatives routinely engage in both pleasantries as well as repartee on Twitter in what is now popularly known as Twiplomacy or Twitter Diplomacy. Twiplomacy is direct, often unencumbered and enables wider reach of foreign policies than traditional channels. Such online engagement can also be converted to a substantial support for foreign policies and/or agendas. It is at times assumed that Twiplomacy has shaken traditional preferences for confidentiality, hierarchy, instrumentality and top-down decision making of foreign affairs departments favouring instead the use of crisp language, visual storytelling, emotional framing, algorithmic navigation, and so on. This is an incorrect conjecture as the traditional modus operandi of foreign interaction remains equally pertinent today. What Twiplomacy has done is added a supplementary avenue of diplomatic exchange which is in keeping with contemporary circumstances.
As diplomatic exchanges thrive on Twitter and other social media platforms, the question is whether it is merely the diplomatic conversation which has moved online or whether there is more to the scope of diplomatic engagement employing digital tools in the virtual space. While the latter has been deliberated by technology stakeholders and to an extent by policy makers, its practice is yet to see the kind of flurry that is observed on Twitter almost on a daily basis. This is where the use of 5G systems, artificial intelligence, wearable technology and the applications of big data come in. Aggregation of big data can assist in the identification of disinformation campaigns while collating geospatial and sensor data for more objective, fact-based information gathering which in turn would aid the core component of diplomacy – negotiation. While the use of some of these technologies is mired in controversy, all of these will eventually find application across sectors and diplomacy too will not be an outlier.
Greater use of digital tools can assist diplomacy in broad ways. First, it ensures a quick response time. Digital tools facilitate diplomatic engagement to happen in real time and in so doing helps ease communication as well as make way for effective action in times of urgency or crisis. Second, it assists in resource mobilization in terms negotiations and building of alliances, primarily by eliminating constraints of distance and time. Third, it helps pave the way for gaining a wider understanding of public emotions and perceptions which can at times facilitate more updated policy approaches and methods of implementation.
This brings us to the dividing line between policy outreach which is designed to inform, assist, facilitate and where applicable, ameliorate global relations and the utilization of sharp power which is aimed at exerting disproportionate levels of influence to censor, manipulate and falsify information for hostile purposes. The virtual space, like many other forms of technology, faces the dual-use challenge i.e., it can serve both constructive purposes and also disruptive ones. For foreign policy this poses a considerable challenge as governments often find themselves in the middle of misinformation and disinformation campaigns which are difficult to debunk and deflate given the pace and volume of the reach that virtual networks offer. Nonetheless, this is a challenge that governments across the world must learn to tackle because the medium and the technology will not go away but rather diversify and proliferate.
The COVID-19 pandemic has already and will probably continue to suspend or reorganize most activities for the foreseeable future. Simultaneously however, engagements and functioning across the world must persist and diplomatic outreach forms a vital component of pooling in efforts to mitigate the health crisis. This involves the dissemination of information, transfers of key supplies, provisioning for the inevitable uncertainties of challenges post the pandemic and reorganizing institutions to better apprehend future exigencies. Bound by limitations on travel, world leaders are responding by convening on virtual platforms for multilateral summits like the G20 and SAARC. India’s first ever virtual bilateral summit is being planned with Australia. COVID-19 demands a fast forward from deliberations to action and foreign ministries around the world need to harness the advantages of cost and geographical inconsequence to effectively respond to the global crisis at hand and also in the process enable digitisation of diplomatic processes which can continue to be in practice in the post-Covid world.